BRUSSELS -- EU officials describe Moldova's repeat election this week as a "crucial test," but the bloc appears to be at pains to supply remedies to potential problems that it identifies with Chisinau.
Its Eastern Partnership targets six of the westernmost Soviet successor states outside the European Union and holds the prospect of gradual economic integration, while the Communist government in Chisinau is looking for political concessions such as visa-free travel and backing in its worsening tug-of-war with neighboring Romania.
Moldova brings into sharp relief the strengths and weaknesses of the EU's so-called neighborhood policy.
Moldova is a linchpin of the EU's Eastern Partnership, which was set up in May. It is the smallest of the six countries targeted -- the others being Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. It borders on the EU and shares a close linguistic and cultural heritage with EU-member Romania. It is also home to what the bloc's top envoy to the country has recently described as the "easiest" of the former Soviet Union's frozen conflicts.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the country's leadership shares the EU's values.
The EU is thus keeping a close eye on these parliamentary elections and their aftermath.
European Commission spokesman Amadeu Altafaj told RFE/RL the repeat poll -- called after the April 5 elections, which were marred by postelection violence, produced a divided parliament that was unable to elect a president -- is a "crucial" test for Moldova.
"What we expect from the elections that will take place on July 29 in Moldova is a demonstration of commitment -- by the authorities and by all the political stakeholders -- to democracy," Altafaj said. "Functioning institutions and a functioning democracy [are] crucial for the future and the stability of Moldova and the whole region."Watching For Progress
Although EU officials remain hopeful about the elections, some have been harshly critical about the Communist authorities' record in the aftermath of the April poll.
In an interview published last week on the website of the EU's Council of Ministers, the bloc's special representative for Moldova, Kalman Mizsei, said the campaign atmosphere remains poisoned by "fierce mutual accusations" traded by government officials and opposition politicians. Mizsei repeated earlier EU statements that the violent crackdown of April 7 entailed massive human-rights violations. And, he said, "the freedom and the quality of the media have deteriorated" since then.
Privately, EU diplomats also say Chisinau has failed to deliver on promises to investigate the events in April. While the government has taken steps to give the opposition greater access to state-owned media, the ruling Communist party continues to campaign unchallenged on the private television channels it owns.
The EU has welcomed a number of minor changes to electoral laws intended to level the playing field for the opposition.
Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin has been willing enough to talk to the EU, having received numerous deputations dispatched from Brussels since April 5. But a planned visit by Voronin to Brussels was called off earlier this month. EU sources say this reflects Chisinau's intractable differences with neighboring Romania, which the Moldovan government has accused of plotting a coup as the mass protests unfolded in April. Meanwhile, Voronin has twice traveled to Moscow.Bucharest...And Beyond
Moldova's spat with Romania -- which has seen Chisinau reintroduce visas for Romanian citizens in a tit-for-tat response to Bucharest's announcement that it will start issuing passports to "Romanians" in Moldova -- continues to gravely hamper the EU's attempts to act as a "facilitator" in the standoff between the government and the purportedly Romanian-friendly opposition.
In a vitriolic statement issued on July 16, Moldova accused Romania of "interference in Moldova's internal affairs" by openly backing "a political force to take over power in another state." Chisinau also urged the EU to intervene on its behalf against Romania.
This is will not happen, given that foreign-policy making remains a national prerogative within the bloc and all 27 EU capitals retain a veto over it.
From the EU's perspective, however, the Romania-Moldova row is just the tip of the iceberg. Even without this added complication, the bloc has struggled to present a coherent and effective response to the crisis in Moldova -- which by Brussels officials' own admission constitutes a grave threat to the Eastern Partnership and to regional stability.
First, the EU's vaunted "transformative power" only has purchase if partners are willing to submit to it. The bloc lacks the means, ability, and the will to coerce its neighbors. Second, the EU's reliance on dialogue as the only acceptable foreign-policy tool means the bloc cannot afford to be seen to alienate any powers-that-be.
The logic of noninterference has forced the bloc into a neutrality, in which its role is limited to upholding the rules of the game -- trying to ensure elections are free and fair, in this instance -- without expressing any preference in terms of the substantive choices people may make.Forced To Improvise
The EU's 27 member states' views tend not to converge. A number of EU countries -- known as the "Friends of Russia Club" -- make policy on Moldova and other eastern neighbors with one eye on Moscow. Romania, with its close involvement, remains isolated. Germany and Poland have forced on the bloc what officials describe as a "quiet diplomacy" of trying to get Moldova to lift visas on Romanians. There has been no serious talk of sanctions.
The EU's Neighborhood Policy itself is hamstrung by a number of inherent limits. It offers gradual integration without any political guarantees of membership. In times of crisis -- from Georgia to Ukraine and now Moldova -- leaders of the neighboring countries look for essentially political concessions to mobilize domestic support and/or galvanize reforms.
EU diplomats say Voronin calls for visa-free travel for Moldovans at every EU meeting he attends. This the EU is unable to deliver, however, as it has publicly vowed to hold applicants to stringent conditions -- the increased security of travel documents, borders, and relevant institutions. EU officials say Moldova's government has failed to make progress on any of the EU’s demands.
As a result, the EU has in recent months been forced to improvise when faced with neighborhood crises, offering up ad-hoc responses at best. For Moldova, these have largely been declarative. In June, EU foreign ministers attempted to draw a line in the sand saying "violence for political aims" was unacceptable. As a carrot, they offered Moldova talks on a new Association Agreement "as soon as circumstances permit."'Easy To Resolve'
The EU's Swedish presidency is set to reiterate these terms in a separate demarche in Chisinau this week.
But EU officials are unable to say what the EU could do if Chisinau fails to comply.
Commission spokesman Altafaj told RFE/RL that "it's in Moldova's hands to prove to the whole international community actually that it can be a stable and functioning democracy, and the rest is just follow-up."
"The consequences of this are obvious in terms of stability, in terms of the prosperity of the citizens, but also in terms of cooperation with international bodies such as the European Union," Altafaj added.
The EU's ultimate sanction at this juncture would be to suspend Moldova's membership of the Eastern Partnership. This is an option, however, which no official in Brussels wishes to countenance publicly, as it would effectively be an admission of impotence on the part of the bloc.
The EU's hands are further tied by Moldova's dire economic situation. Diplomats say the government's "incessant" campaigning has put outside assistance in jeopardy. Moldova continues to fail to qualify for an International Monetary Fund loan. Meanwhile, Chisinau has secured a promise of $500 million from Moscow -- $250 million of which have already been paid out.
Despite the difficulties, official Brussels appears optimistic at least in some respects. The bloc's envoy to the country, Mizsei, said in his interview that the "relatively easy to resolve"
The Transdniestrian conflict could see developments as early as this autumn. Status talks with Tiraspol could resume as soon as a new Moldovan government is in place, Mizsei said.
Through the eyes of RFE/RL correspondents and editors, guest bloggers, and other contributors who are following the July 29 national elections from the streets of Chisinau and far afield. Plus tweets and pics. More